One of the most idiosyncratic elements of Britain’s political framework is its unwritten constitution. Almost alone amongst the many countries of the world, Britain’s political structure is defined not by reference to a single codified text, but instead is made up of a varied assortment of texts, laws, judgements and principles which have evolved since time immemorial. The lack of a codified constitution is not merely a historical accident, though – it is a manifestation of Britain’s historical scepticism of the possibility of a rational grounding for government and rights. The modern-day idea of a written constitution is a concept deeply wedded to the Enlightenment, and to the possibility that a group of men or women could – using solely their reason – formulate a document which would be sufficient to act as a cornerstone of a body politic.
This was not the route chosen by Britain. Edmund Burke, in his Observations on a Late State of a Nation, wrote that ‘politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.’ Burke’s argument here – that politics is the realm of human natures rather than minds and should be treated as such – is in many ways one of the key justifications for an uncodified constitution.
Many written constitutions contain references to human rights. The constitution of the French Fifth Republic, for instance, speaks of ‘human rights [droits de l’Homme] and the principles of national sovereignty, as defined by the Declaration of 1789’ explicitly linking human rights with a man-made declaration. The American Declaration of Independence, similarly, suggests that ‘men […] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ But are human rights any stronger if grounded in a codified constitution than they would be in an unwritten one such as Britain’s? It would seem otherwise – that Britain’s constitution provides one of the best and strongest defences for human rights due to its pliant nature and irreducibility.
The basic human rights enjoyed by British citizens might correspond to those enacted in British law by – for instance – the Human Rights Act of 1998, but they do not stem from it. Such principles as the rule of law or the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment can be found in texts such as the English Bill of Rights of 1688; indeed, even the Norman Magna Carta contains references to liberties of Britons still in force today. Each of these texts, unlike the French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, does not seek to suggest that human rights can be grounded on something as flimsy as a piece of paper – they imply that they are reassertions or reaffirmations of pre-existing ancient rights. As the 1688 Bill of Rights puts it, the British constitution makes reference to ‘ancient rights and liberties.’ Such liberties cannot be removed through a constitutional amendment or reinterpreted according to judicial whim. The effect of our rights being ‘ancient’ is to make them integral to the essence of what it has always been to be a British citizen.
Written constitutions can often become fetishized merely by virtue of being a constitution (and thus a symbol of a country.) Such a situation reduces constitutional elements like human rights into slogans – contingent upon a singular wording at a particular point in history which is then taken to be a transcendent and eternal truth. Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, has written of how this process ‘divorces [rights] from any context of law, custom or tradition’ and makes them ‘uncertain in their meaning.’ But by transcending the inherent limitations of the fixed word upon the page, ‘the security which an Englishman enjoys for personal liberty does not really depend upon or originate in any general proposition contained in any written document’, as A.V. Dicey put it.
When rights are tied to specific wordings arising from specific historical moments they can be both too permissive and too limited. One example of this can be found across the Atlantic in the American Constitution. The Second Amendment argues that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’ This right, arising from a highly specific historical context, is today used in a highly contentious fashion to justify the possession of assault rifles by citizenry. By contrast, the framers of the American constitution did not foresee extending many of the rights they codified to African-Americans; this tying of rights to historical moments through the act of codification was what eventually led to the state-sanctioned enactment of such practices as segregation and Jim Crow laws.
In other constitutional systems there can often be a tension between the right of the people en masse to legislate as they will through the vehicle of parliament, and their individual rights. The former is embodied through parliamentary sovereignty, and the latter through the rule of law. Part of the brilliance of the British system, though, lies in its ability to locate human rights as something which emanate from neither but are guarded by both. The British judiciary and the British legislature both defend differing aspects of British ancient liberties, and the ambiguity as to which is supreme – an ambiguity which is a central element of our uncodified constitution – means that our constitution is flexible enough to allow the precise interpretation of rights to reflect the nuances of each individual act of interpretation, keeping both individual rights and collective political rights in balance.
Considerable public debate regularly takes place on questions of human rights in this country. Such discourse should not be seen as a failure of the unwritten constitution, but in fact a vindication of it. Through its refusal to be tied to specificities – whether a specific document or a specific historical moment – the British constitution takes on a uniquely universal aspect. This is particularly important in terms of human rights – the constitution sees them not as being grounded in written texts but instead merely reaffirmed by them. Certain rights are, and have been since time immemorial, the inalienable property of all British citizens – it is around this understanding that the constitution has evolved.
Those of you active on social media will inevitably have run into them at some point. They’re easily recognisable by their dodgy grammar and spelling, their love of memes and ‘internet humour’, and their apparently perpetual aggression. You’ll find them in places like 4Chan or the darker recesses of Reddit; on Twitter they might be seen adoringly retweeting people like Donald Trump, or alternatively sending anti-Semitic or racist messages to people they dislike. Since 2010 they’ve been growing in number at an alarming rate. They are, of course, the alt-right.
Though they belong, broadly speaking, to the ‘right’ of the political spectrum – hence their name – their ideology is a uniquely 21st century amalgamation of multiple older ones brought together by that great leveller, the internet. In many aspects the alt-right resembles previous movements; in other ways it seems completely new.
At heart, it is a European and American movement opposed to modernity. But it is a paradoxical movement, insofar as it could not have come about without the social climate and technology of the 21st century. The alt-right rejects modern values wholeheartedly, but embraces the technological outlook that the 21st century has brought – in particular, the internet and mobile telecommunications. The observant amongst you might recognise this as a variant of the ‘reactionary modernism’ so prevalent amongst the fascist movement.
What do I mean by modernity? In essence I am referring to post-Enlightenment thought, in particular the values of liberty and equality amongst all humans. This view has, with a few notable hiatuses, been the dominant school of thought in Europe and America for the last three hundred years. It is one rejected by the alt-right.
At heart they oppose the belief that all humans are equal. On their theory, inequality is not just an inevitability but something to be celebrated. Often they will justify this with recourse to pseudo-scientific Social Darwinism; at other times they will simply use distorted and selectively chosen facts taken from dubious sources. This is an important and underemphasised point – the scientific aspirations of the alt-right. They worship science, reason and rationality, and have nothing but contempt for all metaphysical disciplines such as literature or philosophy. Nonetheless, they generally have a very vague grasp of scientific theory and practice; instead, they often have a background in the applied sciences such as engineering or computing.
The fundamental case of inequality, on the alt-right’s theory, is that of race. According to them, racial difference is essential and all-pervading; they feel little commonality between them and an individual of a different race. However, the majority will deny being racists (though most patently are, and many embrace racism whole-heartedly.) Instead they argue that they are ‘race realists’, essentially a pseudo-scientific version of racism. According to them, they do not believe that other races are a posteriori inferior; however, they claim that the ‘unfortunate reality’ is that whites are somehow superior. Often they will produce distorted or out-of-context statistics which support this; they tend to fetishize these statistics as incontrovertible proof of the truth of the alt-right’s position, even when they’re disproved (common examples include ‘blacks are inherently criminal’ or ‘Sweden is the rape capital of the world because of their immigration policies.’
From this, they attempt to construct a ‘reasoned’ approach to racism, one in which they argue it to be a matter of ‘common sense’ that races separate. For, having claimed that whites are superior, it surely seems logical that whites ‘get rid’ of non-whites. Here, the approaches of the alt-right differ; in America the approach seems to be a deportation of illegal immigrants and a gradual removal of rights of legal non-whites, whilst in Europe there tends to be more talk of ‘humane repatriation.’ Bear in mind that in both countries the alt-right is forced to remain within the law; there is little doubt that the movement supports genocide, but cannot legally say so.
Perhaps the most important object of both disgust and fear to the alt-right are Jews. Indeed, they have been responsible for an extraordinary revival of anti-Semitic rhetoric in a way unseen since the 1930s. To the alt-right, the Jews are even more loathsome than other non-whites since they ‘hide in plain sight’, and corrupt ‘white’ society from within. Furthermore, there is an almost childlike credulousness to the alt-right’s beliefs in the powers of the Jews. They are viewed as universally malevolent, universally intelligent, and all conspiring together to bring about the destruction of ‘western civilisation.’ The usual line of argument is that they plan to do this through a ‘liberal conspiracy’ to weaken whites – such phrases as ‘cultural Marxism’ are often mentioned in relation to this, though the utterers normally don’t have much idea what they mean.
Racism, though, is but one plank of the alt-right. The other is a uniquely visceral sexism. Much as, by recourse to pseudo-science, the alt-right believe that non-whites are unequal to whites, they similarly believe that men are somehow superior to women. Indeed, the movement arose fundamentally out of the sexist ‘Gamergate’ controversy, where male ‘gamers’ felt that the traditionally male space of computer games was being ruined by the perceived intrusion of women. A distinction might be made between the anti-feminism of the masses and the ideologues of the alt-right movement. On the part of the former it manifests itself as the mewling women-hatred of men unable to build meaningful relationships with the opposite genders, and who have retreated into anachronistic concepts of masculinity. The latter, however, add an extra level of complexity to their anti-feminism by combining it with their racism. According to these individuals feminism has caused European women to have fewer children, and to have them later – this means that white European birth rates are lower (in some cases significantly) than non-white birth rates. As such, they seek to restore a world in which women lived in subordination, where their role is merely to give birth to white children. Of course, much as the alt-right uses pseudo-scientific racial theory to cloak their fear of non-whites, their grandiose theorising about women masks a fundamental crisis of masculinity that they are experiencing.
More than merely an ideology, though, the alt-right is an approach to politics. It combines toxic anti-modern views with a contradictory embrace of modern technology and culture. Much like the Nazis – who despised modernity whilst still pouring billions into scientific research and technology – the alt-right is a techno-savvy movement. Indeed, it exists (uniquely for a political movement) on the internet, principally on Reddit and 4chan. The virtue of these platforms is that they are unpoliced and lend themselves to monolithic groups hostile to alternate views. Unsuspecting outsiders are sucked into these digital lairs and radicalised, exposed solely to ‘facts’ and media which strengthens the alt-right narrative. The flames of anger are stoked ever higher, directed against immigrants, women and ‘the elites.’ In addition, these online platforms are full of in-jokes and memes – shibboleths by which alt-rightists feel part of a global brotherhood, and can feel self-righteously superior to those who don’t ‘get it.’ Occasionally these users spill out onto other websites – they are known to sally forth onto Twitter to harass individuals who provoke their fury, such as the actress Lesley Jones. Never has a movement been so dependent upon online communications; it is the lifeblood flowing through the veins of the alt-right.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to cast the alt-right as a monolithic group. The most obvious division of the movement is into leaders and fellow-travellers. The majority are of the second camp, and do not necessarily conform to the above description. In particular, many ‘fellow travellers’ will be sympathetic to religion, or perhaps marginally liberal on certain issues. However, the leadership are remarkably homogenous – young, white, male, geeky, contemptuous of metaphysics, and supportive of atheism.
Are the alt-right conservatives? Not really. Conservatism is an ideology centred upon two things; societal cohesion and structural evolution. The first element posits that for a society to advance, different groups within it should be in harmony – blacks and whites, rich and poor, town and country. The alt-right rejects this spectacularly; it attempts to sow division wherever possible, and rejects all compromise as ‘cucking’, to use their delightful term. The second element posits that any change in society must be gradual – evolution, not revolution. Even if a previous change has been wrought by a revolution, the counter-revolution must not be iconoclastic or violent; it should be gradual and cautious. This too is rejected by the alt-right, with their calls for extreme policies against immigrants and democracy.
Neither are they ‘neo-Nazis’, as some well-intentioned but misguided people are attempting to label them. Neo-Nazism is based upon a reconstruction of Nazi ideology in some shape or form; a potent combination of totalitarianism, racism, and third-positionism. The alt-right, though they share the second of these beliefs, generally rejects the first and second of these. They are violently libertarian (perhaps best described as paleo-libertarian, insofar as their libertarianism is wedded to white nationalism) and often approving of brash capitalism. Put simply, the Nazis would have viewed the alt-right as a bunch of long-haired wastrels who needed a shower, a uniform and a ticket to boot camp; the alt-right would have viewed the Nazis as boring reactionaries, even if many of them pay considerable lip service to the Third Reich (at least partly because of the transgressive value of doing so these days.)
What they are, then, is a manifestation of the new division in politics; between populism and elitism. I use the latter word in a non-pejorative sense, descriptively rather than normatively. By it, I mean the liberal-minded, educated class – not merely ‘educated’ in the sense that the alt-right is, simply provided with technical knowledge, but with a liberal, humanistic education. It is these people, regardless of political affiliation, who (for better or worse) are now the fundamental opposition to the populists. Though there is enormous diversity between populists – it is, after all, a movement encompassing Black Lives Matter and the alt-right – they are united in their loathing of ‘the elites’ as much as those elites are united in their fear of the populists.
It seems fairly uncontroversial to state that the alt-right are a serious threat to Western civilisation. In common with terror groups like al-Qaeda or Daesh, they seek to destroy the liberal values intrinsic to the West, and reconstitute our societies in a totalitarian and illiberal mould, one in which women are oppressed, minorities persecuted, free thought stopped, and the self is negated in favour of the state. The British MP Jo Cox was killed by a member of the neofascist group National Action, a group which shares a lot of things with the alt-right (indeed, it is in many ways functionally identical.)
Far-right ideology is fairly indestructible; no matter how many times it is ‘defeated’ by liberalism, it comes back in new forms. Nazism was destroyed in 1945, but it returned as the neo-Nazi hooliganism of the FN and the BNP. The triumph of neoliberalism in the early 21c put paid to those forms of far-right rhetoric, and for a few years liberal thought reigned unchallenged. The alt-right is merely the latest in this long line of challengers to liberalism. Will it be defeated? Certainly. How and when? Who knows – but it looks like they’re going to be around for a long time.
The votes have been cast, the ballots have been counted, and the verdict is in. After an eight-year absence, a Labour mayor is back in City Hall. Sadiq Khan will be the first Muslim (and indeed the first ethnic minority) to occupy the seat formerly held by Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, and his mandate is highly respectable, garnering 56% of the vote. Sadiq has promised to govern as his own man, and to distance himself from the rapidly-disintegrating Parliamentary Labour Party; there is no reason yet to doubt him.
So why did Zac lose? Some cynics might argue that he’s simply fallen victim to demographic realities – the middle-class voter base that the Tories have relied on are now moving out of London, to be replaced by working-class and/or ethnic Labour supporters. That’s true, to an extent; whereas ten years ago middle-class families were moving within London to areas like Richmond, Hampstead or Northwood, a mixture of declining living conditions and rising prices have meant that many are no longer London voters, having fled to the green and pleasant lands of Hertfordshire, Surrey or Kent. This is definitely going to have an impact upon the Conservative vote.
But it isn’t quite so easy as that. These demographic changes didn’t happen overnight; they were well underway when Boris Johnson won in both 2008 and 2012. Zac’s loss might have been exacerbated by these factors, but it’s certainly not reducible to it. Nor can the loss be explained merely by playing the ethnic card. Whilst London is indeed a majority-minority city – White British voters make up only 40% of the population – that conceals a huge amount of variation. Muslims only make up 12% of London’s population, and even if every single one were to vote for Sadiq – which is patently untrue, with many famous Muslim Tories hailing from London – it wouldn’t be nearly enough for him to gain victory.
The answer, then, is that Zac lost because he was a weak candidate. That’s not to malign him as a person – I’m assured that he’s a very decent fellow and a damn good constituency MP. But his campaign was decidedly poor, especially in comparison to Sadiq’s well-thought-through one. For much of the race, Zac simply didn’t seem to have much passion or energy. Instead, what the public saw was a rather anaemic and listless man, with none of the verve that had characterised his Conservative predecessor Boris Johnson.
Zac’s campaign lacked a ‘big idea’, a grand overarching theme that could have tied together all the other elements of his platform. Instead, he opted for the trouble-shooter approach, offering common-sense solutions to individual problems, one step at a time. In many ways that’s the sensible thing to do, and in terms of solid policy proposals Zac was far ahead of Sadiq. He offered well-costed, logical ideas which would have gone some way towards solving the problems being faced by Londoners; the housing crisis, rising transport fees, and community cohesion concerns.
But that wasn’t enough. Sadiq had very effectively branded himself as a ‘mayor for all Londoners.’ He leveraged his background to appeal to the traditional Labour base, but was never obnoxious or overtly racial. Equally important in his pitch to his ethnic background was the fact that he was ‘the son of a bus driver’ – a working-class boy done good. He went into overdrive reassuring groups of his desire to unify the city; for instance, he spoke convincingly of his support for the financial services sector, an area traditionally leery of Labour.
He also made this race about him, not his party. He put clear water between him and Jeremy Corbyn, emphasising that he would not merely be an extension of the dysfunctional national Labour Party. Zac’s campaign attempted to play the Corbyn card, suggesting that Sadiq would turn London into a testing-ground for Corbynite policies, but this narrative never really took off – mainly because there was never any good evidence for it.
In the latter stages of the campaign, I think Zac’s advisors realised that they were suffering as a result of their lack of an overarching theme. This could have been their chance to find a strong narrative for the party to rally round, and might have swung the race in Zac’s favour. Unfortunately, they then made one of the largest mistakes of the campaign, turning it into a viciously personal attack on Sadiq.
There’s no proof for this, but Lynton Crosby’s fingerprints are all over this. Crosby is the master of using spectacular tactics to shock (and often scare) voters into plumping for the Conservatives. In 2015 his stroke of genius was to convince the electorate that a vote for anybody but the Tories would be a vote for Nicola Sturgeon. It doesn’t seem beyond belief that he attempted to use this trick again; convince the electorate that Sadiq was a friend of terrorists and extremists, hence making Zac the only choice.
This isn’t in character for Zac, which is why I suspect it was a strategy foisted upon him by figures higher up in the Party. It was also a strategy which bombed catastrophically. This was for two reasons – and racism isn’t one of them. In fact, I’m somewhat disappointed in many Labour activists who labelled the Tories racist during the campaign; it’s an ideologically dishonest way of shutting down debate.
However, the accusations were for the most part untrue or exaggerated. The most damning evidence seemed to be that Sadiq had argued for radical Islamist Yusuf Qaradawi to be allowed to enter the country. Here I feel that we’ve scored an own goal. As a Tory I celebrate free speech in all its manifestations. I support the right of Nick Griffin or David Irving to speak whenever and wherever they’re invited, because I believe it’ll discredit their ideology; in the same vein, I feel that a man like Qaradawi shouldn’t be prevented from speaking in Britain. Yes, much of what he says is medieval and offensive; but unless it can be proven that what he says will directly precipitate violence, he should be allowed to say it. Hopefully, an open platform will expose how asinine and barbaric his views are. Sadiq shouldn’t be criticised for enabling free speech, something which we Conservatives have fought long and hard to preserve.
The other issue which Zac pressed Sadiq on was the fact that he’d shared a platform with various dubious characters. Yes, that’s true; but what of it? There was never a suggestion that he himself had espoused those views, and that’s because (to the best of my knowledge) he hasn’t. Indeed, he may well have exerted a moderating influence upon more radical individuals. In hindsight they weren’t the brightest things to do, but Sadiq proved he can move beyond them.
That’s the other problem; Labour foresaw this angle, and by the time the inevitable assault came Sadiq had already established his bona fides through a series of well-choreographed speeches and meetings which put clear water between him and the radicals. He denounced Ken Livingstone as the repulsive anti-Semite he is; he assiduously courted the Jewish vote without coming across as artificial; he put counterterrorism at the heart of his campaign. As such, Zac’s broadsides against him ended up seeming weak and ill-considered.
So what next? What’s clear is that we need to wage a stronger and more coherent campaign next time. This election was a bit of a mess, to be honest; lacking in an ideological direction, and far too negative and pessimistic. There’s a lot Zac could have said about the vision he had for the city; instead he chose to run a campaign based on what he didn’t want. For 2020 we need a campaign which clearly expresses a Conservative vision for the city, and which is clearly ideologically different to our opponents. At times Zac seemed to be playing catch-up with Sadiq; not a good position to be in.
Furthermore, we need a more electable candidate. Zac is a splendid fellow, but he simply didn’t have the charisma necessary to convince people of his passion. This isn’t a question of class; Boris has been an exceptionally popular mayor, despite being eminently upper-class. But where Boris embraced his ‘poshness’ and made it a loveable quality, Zac tried to mask it behind an at-times risible Everyman persona that convinced nobody. We need a candidate who is confident, affable and who appeals to all Londoners; a candidate with a narrative. That doesn’t necessarily mean picking an ethnic minority or a female candidate, as some have rather cynically suggested. But there needs to be an awareness of how any candidate will play with those groups.
The final factor is out of anybody’s hands, to an extent. 2020 will be the first time that a mayoral election coincides with a general election. As such, success or failure in City Hall will be determined by No. 10. If the Tories go into the election as saviours of the economy, united and confident, they’ll make the job a lot easier for whoever’s contesting London for them. On the other hand, if the results of the referendum force a collapse in the party, and if Labour have found a more electable leader than the present idiot-in-chief, life will be tough for a Conservative mayoral candidate.
Superficially the Conservative Party is in the strongest position it has been in since 1992. It has a majority in the Commons, a mandate from the nation, and is perceived as having succeeded in restoring the country’s finances and led it out of the deepest recession in years. Its’ opponents are in disarray – made politically irrelevant in the case of UKIP, in the case of Labour driven into an ideological civil war.
Yet the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith from the Cabinet yesterday indicates that the Prime Minister’s greatest threat lies from within his own party. Duncan Smith ostensibly left over a disagreement with the Treasury over cuts to disability benefits, but his sudden departure shows that the Tories are in a perilous position, one which may well lead to their implosion if Cameron cannot unite his party.
The fundamental issue is that Tory MPs dislike the Prime Minister and his allies. Whether it was Nadine Dorries’ caustic dismissal of Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne as ‘arrogant posh boys’, or Charles Walker’s statement that he had been ‘played for a fool’ by Michael Gove and William Hague (both Cameron loyalists and personal friends of the PM), Cameron’s premiership has been littered with intimations of discontent from the backbenches. This came to a head with the defection of Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell to UKIP in summer 2014, something which struck at the heart of Cameron’s claims that the Conservative Party was a ‘big tent’ which had room for Eurosceptics. Both Reckless and Carswell were evidently unhappy with the leadership style of Cameron and Osborne.
Duncan Smith was, like those two, a prominent Eurosceptic, and that was certainly a causal factor in his departure. Earlier this month he had criticised the Remain campaign (and implicitly the PM) for ‘the acrimonious manner’ in which he had handled the referendum campaign, and suggested it approached bullying. He, and others such as his protégé Priti Patel, were never precisely sure how secure their position in the Cabinet was. As is often the case on issues where politicians ‘agree to disagree’, neither faction was quite sure how free they were to speak their mind. It is not inconceivable that his departure was to enable him to take the leading role in the Out campaign that he clearly wanted.
But Europe is symptomatic of a wider problem; Cameron is losing control of his party. He has been persistently aloof and uninterested in compromise with his own backbenches, and has increasingly turned the Tories into his own fiefdom. One notable way by which this has been effected was the ‘A-List’ policy of placing centrally approved candidates in safe seats; such candidates would not only be ideologically vetted for commitment to Cameron-ism, but would also be personally loyal to Tory high leadership. Despite the obvious anger of local associations, Cameron pressed ahead with this policy – building in a majority of loyalists, but at the cost of angering established Tories.
In addition he has ridden roughshod over his backbenchers and even members of the Cabinet who did not conform to his ideological standards. One example is the shabby treatment meted out to the exceptionally talented MP Graham Brady, who Cameron allowed to resign after Brady dared speak out against Cameron’s rejection of opening new grammar schools. Notable too were the numerous times that Cameron seemed far more amenable to Lib Dem politicians than to his own MPs; his decision to go into coalition rather than maintain a minority government was not appreciated by those MPs shunted out of prospective ministerial jobs to make way for Lib Dems. He then attempted to force through a reform of the Upper House, only to be stopped by a backbench revolt that he dealt with by (allegedly) physically threatening rebellious MP Jesse Norman.
Iain Duncan Smith has long been a victim of his, something which his resignation has only now fully revealed. For years he was made a hate figure by the left, caricatured as a humourless sociopath hell-bent on snatching benefits from the hands of the unemployed. Duncan Smith was the fall guy in the government’s reforms of welfare, the man who was sent to justify the government in front of the TV cameras. But even away from the press, it is clear that he was cruelly used indeed, forced to repeatedly make swingeing rounds of cuts to enable the governments’ spending limits to be kept.
The nadir in this has been the most recent budget, a document which reads from start to finish as an enormous political calculation. The Chancellor is clearly aware of the fact that certain groups are more likely to support the Tories than others. 18-30 year olds are hugely unsympathetic to the Conservatives, whereas pensioners are more likely to migrate between parties based on financial considerations. As such, this budget is a culmination of many years of economic bribery directed towards the elderly; the infamous ‘triple lock’ on pensions and the 2014 liberalisation of the same industry are two notable examples.
Pensioners are not the only recipient of Cameron and Osborne’s munificence: the two have continued to press on with their plans for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, principally through road improvements and ‘HS3.’ In 2015 the Tories succeeded in shaking up Labour control of the North, for instance through unseating Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood. In this light, it is difficult to see HS3 as being anything other than a political ploy to gain votes in this key area.
The victim of all of this has been the welfare system. This is not to suggest, of course, that the system is not in need of reform – there are many areas in which increased efficiency is needed, and the fundamental goal of a leaner and better benefits system is laudable. But for No. 10 to spend extravagantly for political reasons in this budget, and then to leave the tab at the feet of the Work and Pensions department, is fundamentally unjust. Duncan Smith is not resigning merely because he disagrees with the piece of paper he was made to sign; he is resigning because he is tired of being used as a tool by Osborne and Cameron.
What does this entail for the Conservatives going ahead? In the short term Cameron’s position is consolidated, with a potential thorn in his side leaving the cabinet to be replaced with an avowed Cameron loyalist in the form of the genial Stephen Crabb. If we presume that Priti Patel will follow her boss out (a move which seems inevitable) then the Cabinet is increasingly emptying of Eurosceptics – if Cameron wins the referendum, more will go. In addition, Duncan Smith’s departure offers an opportunity for the government to make a respectable u-turn on disability benefit reforms, casting it as an internal rethink rather than something forced by Labour.
In the long term, however, this is a serious issue for the Tories. Whilst Duncan Smith has gone from cabinet, the downside is that he is now free to speak his mind from the back benches – and there are many Tories who will listen, on both wings of the party. Duncan Smith’s Euroscepticism means that many MPs thus inclined will see him as a martyr; similarly, the more liberal wing of the party will sympathise with the circumstances over which he resigned.
Moreover, this is a public vote of no confidence in David Cameron and George Osborne, an overt sign that things are amiss within the Conservative Party. It will force the government into either pressing ahead with the reforms – which the press will spin as a return of the ‘nasty party’ – or a retreat which will inevitably appear weak. Tory backbenchers will view this as a license to become even more assertive, seeing Duncan Smith’s resignation as portending the collapse of the Cameron ministry after the referendum.
Everything presently hangs upon the outcome of this referendum. It goes without saying that Cameron will resign if he fails to win, and Osborne too – he has staked far too much on it. But merely winning is not enough. Even a close victory would fail to convince his party – and voters – that he holds the confidence of the nation. In the event that he fails to win the referendum confidently, the resignation of IDS will have been the first nail in the coffin of Cameronism. A flurry of further resignations will either result in Cameron’s resignation or a humiliating vote of no confidence. If, on the other hand, Cameron clearly wins the referendum, a major spring-cleaning of the cabinet will be in order. Either way, this is far more than a resignation.
The debate over Britain’s membership of the EU seems to have lost its way somewhat. Reams of paper have been published detailing economic arguments and forecasts; various business notables have spoken both for and against continued membership; both the Prime Minister and his detractors have given considerable attention to the intricacies of the renegotiated deal brought home from Brussels.
All this is, of course, of great relevance to the question of our membership of the EU. But in many ways the importance attached to economic arguments is obstructing a debate over a larger and more fundamental issue; what is Britain’s position in the modern world?
The first thing to point out is that the age of a Britain in splendid isolation is over. Both the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps agree with this. Britain is no longer a major economic power, and our foreign influence is greatly diminished. In 1945 Britain still ruled much of the globe and had one of the greatest armed forces in the world; this is not true anymore. As such, it is inevitable that we will need to align ourselves with other nations in order to retain political and economic influence.
The question, then, is who we should align ourselves with. The ‘leave’ camp posits that we could build closer links with the Commonwealth; this is a naïve idea which I suspect most eurosceptics do not genuinely believe. The phrase ‘the Commonwealth’ might refer to two groupings of countries; the ‘old’ Commonwealth (essentially Canada, Australia and New Zealand), and the ‘new’ Commonwealth (the African, Asian and Caribbean countries formerly part of the Empire.) We could not plausibly create a strategic force with either of these groupings. In the case of the former, the countries in question are too economically irrelevant and too geographically diffuse to constitute an entity which could wield genuine influence; in the case of the latter, the enormous disparity in economic development would ruin Britain if any form of economic union was attempted.
Who else, then? The world has historically been a bipolar one, with history driven by the tension between East and West. At present, the West is unquestionably led by America; the demise of the USSR means that the East is represented by both Russia and China. Most countries around the world are aligned with one or the other of these camps. Consider the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Jordan are firmly pro-American; Syria, Iran, Egypt (since al-Sisi’s revolution) and increasingly Iraq are pro-Russian. The only countries in the region which have the luxury of a non-aligned policy are those few small states who are both wealthy and unconcerned with regional influence; Oman springs to mind.
But the choice between Sino-Russian and American hegemony is an unappetising one, perhaps fundamentally because we are culturally dissimilar from both. The ‘ideology’ of the East has always been one in which the individual is subordinated to the state. This was true in Tsarist Russia, with its’ celebration of ‘nationalism, orthodoxy and autocracy’; it was true in Maoist China, with its millions sacrificed upon the altar of national revolution; even today, Russia and China are fundamentally opposed to liberalism and individual liberty. This can be seen in the poor treatment of homosexuals, minorities and even women in both countries.
A casual observer might presume that Britain has a cultural affinity with the USA. I will concede that we share certain features with them; our language, for instance. However, we should not make the mistake of assuming that we are at all alike. America is a nation built upon the cult of the individual; the exaltation of individual liberty and hatred of the state. It is this ideology which is still driving politics on every side of the political spectrum; from Bernie Sanders’ regular criticism of Wall St. to Donald Trump’s odious diatribes against government institutions. It is this which engenders the celebration of gun ownership, or even the Ammon Bundy movement. Moreover, there are other serious cultural differences. America is a country driven by vapid consumerism and a fetishisation of material goods. It is a country beholden to evangelical Protestantism. For a British politician to talk about Jesus incessantly would be unthinkable; in America it is essentially a prerequisite for election. What I am driving at, is that Britain is not culturally American.
Moreover, it would not be desirable to become so. It rends my heart to see British culture taken over by American artificiality, which is infiltrating in every medium. Britain is home to one of the great cultures of the world, and the act of cultural vandalism that Americanisation constitutes is a crime against our heritage. Whilst we accept that we have a long historical relationship with America, that should not entail that we become part of their cultural sphere.
Where, then, does this leave Britain? It has been established that union with the Commonwealth is unviable, and alliances with either America or Russia are undesirable. Yet it is self-evident that in its’ present state the UK is not ready to go alone (though I do not rule out that at some point in the future we might.)
The only middle path is Europe. We share a great cultural affinity with Europe, engendered principally by the basic geographical reality that we are part of the European continent. Our great artists and writers have all been directly influenced by Europe; Milton was fluent in three European languages and travelled extensively through the continent, as did Chaucer, Marlowe and Wordsworth. European cultural influences are evident throughout our heritage. Moreover, we have been intimately economically linked with Europe throughout history. The continent has always been our major trading partner, and today we are closer linked than ever.
The EU consists of a ‘third position’ between America and Russia. Together, it constitutes an economy of $18tn, with sufficient economic diversity to ensure it remains a sustainable economic project. Different parts of the EU contain different elements of a successful, self-contained economy; Eastern Europe offers labour, Germany and the Netherlands heavy industry, France and Britain a highly developed services industry, Southern Europe raw materials and elements of all the above.
Together, Europe could act as a great power to challenge the hegemony of America and Russia. We would be able to do this not only through our economic might, but through military prowess too. Britain and France are two of the strongest militaries in the world, and our German and Scandinavian partners are not far behind. Together, we would be able to mount a credible non-aligned foreign policy, no longer beholden to American or Russian interests. A common EU security pact would make NATO – a tool for American domination of Europe – redundant. Pan-European forces would be able to act as mediators and peacekeepers in conflicts around the world, gaining the support of foreign states as Europe is once more seen as a thoroughly independent power.
I believe in Europe. I believe in Britain’s destiny as a European nation, not merely subject to the EU but taking a central leading role within it. Whilst I reject the idea of domination from Brussels, such matters are irrelevant to the fundamental debate; that of Britain’s position in the world. In my opinion the historical, cultural and geographic realities all point to a convincing case for Britain to remain part of the political framework of Europe.
Three months ago, the Labour leadership race seemed like a shoo-in. It was almost inevitable that Andy Burnham, the erstwhile Education Minister and Establishment-approved choice, would sail to a comfortable victory over an otherwise unremarkable crowd. And so the slow decline of New Labour would continue.
But it appears that some people thought differently. The sudden entry of Jeremy Corbyn into the race has transformed it from an otherwise unremarkable transition process into a debate as to the nature of what Labour stands for in the 21st century. The reaction of the Labour establishment has spanned the gamut of emotions from delight to fury to disbelief to – increasingly – panic, as it becomes clear that Corbyn has a very good chance of winning the contest.
Until this year, Jeremy Corbyn was considered by most as an amusing oddity. Avuncular and bearded, he inveigled himself into a Labour safe seat (Islington North) more than thirty years ago and had spent much of that time carving out a niche for himself as an outspoken leftist indulgently tolerated by the Labour leadership. He was aware that his views precluded him from higher office, but the freedom afforded by possession of a safe seat gave him the opportunity to use his voice in Parliament to espouse various eccentric left-wing causes. Amongst these were House of Lords reform, animal rights and advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians – the bread and butter of the left.
But now we are in a position where Jeremy Corbyn may well become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Firstly, how on earth did we get to this place? It seems that after eighteen years New Labour has finally run out of steam. The other three candidates – Burnham, Cooper and (in particular) Kendall – are products of New Labour to a man. All Oxbridge-educated and all nestled within the bosom of the Labour establishment, the ideology they espouse is in essence a restatement of Blairism with a few modifications. They are all believers in a Labour Party appealing to the middle classes and which reflects their concerns, aspirations and hopes. This ideology governed the party from 1997 to 2007 in an unadulterated form; even from 2007 to 2015 it underpinned the direction of the party.
It is hard for people born after 1995 to comprehend the magnitude of the shift from Old Labour to New Labour. Old Labour was a statist party, a party with a profound mistrust of capitalism and the private sector. It was a party which appealed to the working classes and was fundamentally focussed on creating a socialist paradise for them. In short, it was everything which Blair’s New Labour was not. Blair (correctly) realised that Old Labour was a discredited ideology, and transformed the party into a brand-new movement sharing only the name. Fundamentally it was a middle class party, and as such it modified its’ positions hugely. Out went the trade unions, and in came the private sector. Grammar schools became acceptable once more, whilst privatising the running of the NHS via PFI contracts became de rigeur.
Kendall, Cooper and Burnham were all moulded in this intellectual milieu. Cooper and Burnham were both devotees of Gordon Brown, and as such their variant of New Labour is somewhat more to the left – their opposition to tuition fees, for example. Kendall is about as orthodox a Blairite as one can be, hence her vocal championing of the private sector and her concern to market Labour as friendly towards small businesses.
However after eighteen years of New Labour, it appears that the country has tired of it. New Labour derived its’ success from selling out Old Labour’s core constituency – the working classes. Blair calculated that they had no choice but to stick with Labour, and hence ignored them completely in favour of policies clearly designed to curry favour with the middle classes. This strategy worked as long as its core assumption held true – that the working classes would always remain with Labour.
Oddly enough it was the rise of UKIP which scotched that particular myth. There was a rather paternalistic assumption amongst Labour elites that the lumpen proletariat were congenitally left-wing. What they failed to realise was that they were in fact simply populist. Whichever party offered them enough goodies, they would vote for. This precluded the Tories, and to a great extent Labour. But in UKIP the working classes found a party which seemed to speak for them. It was a party which seemed antithetical to the elites, and which offered simple solutions towards a putative ‘Great’ Britain. The working classes left Labour in droves for UKIP.
Until recently, the assumption was that UKIP was a party appealing primarily to disaffected Tories – Colonel Blimp types who still hadn’t gotten over the Napoleonic Wars or the loss of the Empire. 2015 revealed that in reality UKIP was doing hugely well in Labour strongholds. By offering an anti-elitist platform and preying on the fears of the working class, they succeeded in stripping enough Labour votes from their core constituency for Labour to fail to engage in the ultra-important swing seats that they were targeting.
This combined with the fall of Scotland. In the same manner as with UKIP, the working classes – who Labour chiefs had previously assumed would never desert the party – migrated almost en masse to the SNP. This is not for nationalistic reasons (as has been claimed by overeager SNP politicians) but because the SNP offered a credible far-left policy that outflanked Labour. For more than a decade now Scottish Labour voters have felt alienated from a London-centric party that seems foreign to them; privately educated, socially liberal and affluent. The populist SNP was able to feed off this resentment and ride to victory.
All this explains why Corbyn seems on the verge of victory. He is a representative of Old Labour par excellence. With his beard and his flat cap, he looks and sounds like a member of the working class. His rhetoric is anti-elitist and his policies are populist. Whether he’s talking about renationalising the railways, or prosecuting Tony Blair for war crimes, Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in capturing the attention of the working classes. After almost two decades of inattention, Corbyn has managed to convince them that Labour might still speak for them.
Ironically enough, in many ways Corbyn is uncomfortably close to UKIP. Both are bitterly anti-elitist, and both Farage and Corbyn pride themselves on their accessibility and ‘common touch’ (hence the pint that seemed superglued to Farage’s hand for most of the campaign.) Their policies are also remarkably similar in many ways – both call for grand solutions and localisation as a panacea. Though there are significant differences, most obviously on Europe and immigration, these are not as serious as they are made out to be. For voters, all that is needed is a scapegoat, and they can switch between them with remarkable ease. UKIP succeeded in scapegoating immigrants and casting them as the cause of the country’s ills; Corbyn seems set to do the same with the rich. In both cases they are hugely wrong; in both cases the public will connect with the message.
The truth of the matter is that Jeremy Corbyn is not a messiah. He is a rabble-rouser who plays on peoples’ fears to peddle a brand of far-left rhetoric that was outdated in the 80s. His rise to power is indicative of his ability to feed off the fears and paranoia of the working classes, and he is able to make farcical promises through his not having to worry about the limitations imposed by the vagaries of the national finances. Jeremy Corbyn is totally unelectable and would be a disaster for the country…
…which is exactly why I (as a Conservative) am rooting for him to win.